Throughout the late ‘90s and early aughts, Massachusetts Street—or Mass, as Lawrence, Kansas, locals call it—was packed with restaurants and bars slinging burgers, pints and whiskey drinks. Just a short walk away from the main campus of University of Kansas, the idyllic strip filled with music venues and bookshops drew people from every corner of town.
“That’s where the trendy drinks were,” says Jeff Jensen, the former owner of Jensen Liquors and current director of sales and admin for Free State Brewing. “Back when I had the store, the brand’s rep was coming through and he said Lawrence sells more Old Overholt than any other place west of the Mississippi.”
That was all thanks to local bartenders championing the Horsefeather. Essentially a twist on the classic Horse’s Neck, which dates back to the 1800s, the Horsefeather employs a ginger element of some sort, a few dashes of Angostura bitters, lemon juice or peel and, most often, Old Overholt rye whiskey. The name is an old slang term meaning “nonsense,” which is entirely appropriate considering the mythology surrounding the drink and its origins.
“I never heard of the Horsefeather until I moved to Lawrence from California eight years ago,” says Kanani Warner, general manager at Louise’s Bar, a Mass St. dive. “It’s a Lawrence drink to me. My dad owned a bar when I was growing up and I’ve worked in a lot of bars and never heard of it before moving here.”
The earliest-known mention of the Horsefeather in any craft cocktail book appears in Gary “Gaz” Regan’s The Bartender’s Bible, published in 1991, where it was dubbed “Horse Feathers” and called for blended whiskey, ginger ale and bitters. Regan doesn’t remember where the drink originated.
“I’ve not a clue where that drink came from,” says Regan. “Truth be told, a bunch of the recipes in that book were old recipes for cocktails with different names. I just copied recipes, tested them, altered them if I saw fit and gave them a new name. This might or might not have been the case with Horse Feathers—I’m a big Marx Brothers fan.”
The Horsefeather’s murky history has led to a fair amount of controversy. Some in the region credit Kansas City, not Lawrence, with the creation of the contemporary version of the drink, where it’s also been popular for years—but there’s little, if any, reputable evidence to support that claim. That the Horsefeather has been heralded by Kansas City distillery J. Rieger & Co., likely contributes to misconceptions about where the cocktail originated.
Ryan Maybee, co-founder of J. Rieger & Co., who has said in the past that he “appropriated the recipe” as a vehicle for the brand’s Kansas City Whiskey, says he did manage to track down a reference to a cocktail called the Bradley Martin Highball in the Kansas City Star from 1898 that calls for a peel of lemon, a jig of whiskey, a dash of orange bitters and ginger ale. “It’s incredibly close to the Horsefeather,” he says. “It dates back further than anything I’ve seen and it references a bar in Kansas City.”
Though similar, the drink uses a different kind of bitters and doesn’t specify the variety of whiskey, which is an important distinction when it comes to the contemporary version of the cocktail. “The Horsefeather as we know it is without a doubt from Lawrence, Kansas,” states Maybee.
Lawrencians—including Maybee and many local bartenders—point to local dive and music venue Eighth Street Taproom as its birthplace, but the Horsefeather was being taught to bartenders who passed through Paradise Cafe throughout the ’90s. The a now-defunct downtown Lawrence bar and restaurant was serving the drink even before it was published in Regan’s Bible.
“I know personally that I learned it from Bob Oswald at Paradise [around 1992],” says Jeremy Sidener, operator of the Eighth Street Taproom and a regular on the Lawrence bar scene since the early ‘90s. “He seemed pretty comfortable with the drink when I met him.”
According to Sidener, the first iteration of the drink in Lawrence looked a little different from what bartenders sling around town today; it called for club soda, blended whiskey and a dash of bitters. “That was the Lawrence standard for ages,” says Sidener, noting that the addition of ginger came later.
After a change of ownership, Paradise Cafe eventually shut down for good in 2004. In the years leading up to and following its demise, bartenders who trained there moved on and took the drink with them.
“Each new place took someone from Paradise Cafe. Our crew went to the Replay Lounge, the Replay crew went to Eldridge Hotel and The Bourgeois Pig,” says Sidener. “We told people to drink it—we told them it was good. We pushed it and we continue to push it.”
As the bar culture of Lawrence evolved, the cocktail took on its own critical mass, becoming popular enough in a couple of bars that locals started expecting to be able to order it all over town. Nearly three decades later, it’s ingrained in local culture.
Today, no matter where you go in Lawrence, the interpretation of the Horsefeather is always slightly different. Replay Lounge and Louise’s Bar use ginger ale. The Bourgeois Pig prefers ginger beer with a cherry garnish. Eighth Street Taproom uses “ginger water,” a blend of pressed fresh ginger and the remaining boiled pulp. Some use lemon juice, others just the rind, while some use no lemon at all. All but the Taproom use Angostura bitters. Most recipes still use Old Overholt, but bartender Casey Bear at Limestone Pizza says they use a ginger simple syrup and sometimes swap in Dickel Rye instead.
Though the riffs on the contemporary recipe and the hearsay about its origins are as abundant as emptied bottles of Old Overholt in the area, the one thing that stays consistent is that locals will tell you the contemporary Horsefeather is Lawrencian through and through.